What is public relations?

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Public relations is an essential function of any modern organization, from small businesses to established enterprises – but what, exactly, is PR?

What is PR: Defining a complex and evolving concept

Answering this seemingly simple question can be surprisingly difficult. For starters, PR overlaps with several other common domains like advertising and marketing, sometimes making it difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Like advertising and marketing, PR is also a detailed undertaking across social media platforms, company websites, print, podcasts and more. It can look quite different from one channel to the next.

While there are many possible definitions of PR, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) offered one that is both comprehensive and widely accepted. The PRSA sees PR as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

This definition is broad, as it applies to any “communication process” and not just the common 20th century conceptions of what PR specialists do, namely write press releases and handle media relations. The “strategic” modifier in the PRSA definition is also important, since PR campaigns now need to be carefully coordinated across channels, regularly recalibrated as public opinion evolves, and synchronized with marketing and advertising programs as well.

PR specialists brainstorming ideas.

At the same time, PR professionals still have to take ad hoc actions as needed, such as performing damage control in the wake of unexpected events. Indeed, anyone working in PR needs a versatile set of skills, not only for crafting narratives that fit into a broader strategy, but also for helping their organization or client maintain the best possible image in the public eye.

Why is PR important?

Now that we know what PR is, why should companies invest in it?

Because the value of PR can’t be overstated.

A well-designed and executed PR campaign can deliver numerous benefits for an organization, including but not limited to:

  • Broader influence: The public – and in particular, the large millennial generation, according to HubSpot – is highly receptive to PR content such as blog posts and social media updates when trying to learn more about something or make a decision.
  • Better credibility: By keeping the public updated and providing high-quality, engaging writing and other content (e.g., videos and podcasts), companies can boost their brand equity and image, while establishing themselves as credible information sources.
  • Greater reach: Multichannel strategic PR campaigns are integral to reaching new audiences and cultivating relationships with existing ones. Not everyone reads press releases or opens direct mail, so it’s important to reach people wherever they are, whether that’s on Facebook, YouTube, a mailing list or somewhere else.
  • Higher sales: PR professionals are on the front lines of boosting search engine optimization, raising awareness about new and current products, and bringing in new qualified leads. A coherent PR strategy is accordingly a must-have for any commercial operation.
  • More positive perceptions: Effective PR can shape public opinion about an organization. Successful firms from Apple to Patagonia have used PR to consistently define their missions and niches. Similarly, companies that are adept at responding to crises can more easily maintain a positive image.

In realizing these benefits, PR professionals often explore multiple forms of media relations, which all fit into the PESO (paid, earned, shared, owned) model.

Paid media includes sponsored posts on blogs, social media promotions and search ads, showing how PR and advertising intersect.

Earned media refers to coverage acquired mostly through news coverage, placements and relationships. Examples include media tours, op-eds, press kits and influencer marketing.

Shared media encompasses the use of all social media platforms, as well as some specialized instances such as co-branding initiatives and sponsorships.
Owned media is exactly what it sounds like: Forums such as the company blog, email newsletters, webinars and infographics all fit into this category.

Activities within any part of the PESO model might be used for any common PR purpose. For example, a PR professional might opt to share a press release for damage control (sometimes called the “negative side” of PR) across all of their employer’s official social media channels. Alternatively, they might choose to develop a brand story (“positive” PR) on the company-owned blog.

PR specialists: What do they normally do?

Public relations specialist is the most common profession in the PR field, and one that comes with a wide range of possible responsibilities. PR specialists need excellent writing, speaking and problem-solving skills to navigate the numerous tasks that might confront them on a given day, from reaching out to a contact in the press to crafting the right message for a Facebook update.

Common responsibilities include:

  • Creating press releases, blog posts and other written content for official release.
  • Setting up interviews, preparing media kits and drafting speeches.
  • Monitoring public and political opinion through social media and online or in-person surveys.
  • Reviewing and selecting advertising and marketing programs that align with PR goals.
  • Helping company executives communicate their message to the public.
  • Consulting with clients on PR strategies and tactics.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), public relations specialists earned a median annual pay of $60,000 in 2018. There were approximately 270,000 of them employed at that time. Total employment is expected to grow 6% from 2018 to 2028, or about as fast as the average for all professions.

Another important and common position in the field is the public relations or fundraising manager. This role involves more strategic work, such as determining an organization’s overall brand image, hiring staff and collaborating with other executives. It also overlaps somewhat with the PR specialist’s responsibilities, for instance drafting press releases and overseeing communications with the public.

PR team reviewing a document.

What kinds of PR strategies do PR professionals create?

PR professionals perform highly varied work. One day they might write a press release, and the next they could set up a media interview and coordinate with their partners in marketing and advertising. Many of their workflows also fit into larger strategies. Some examples of them include:

Influencer marketing

As PR and marketing have become more intertwined, relationships with influencers have become important to building awareness. Social media in particular is a haven for influencers who have large audiences and can help promote a certain PR message in creative ways.

Native advertising

This practice involves pieces of paid content, such as promoted blog posts, that appear mostly similarly to their organic equivalents. Native ads can help tell a story and build trust without seeming like they’re trying to sell anything.

Crisis response

PR specialists have to safeguard the reputation of their firms and clients, which means they need to be prepared for unexpected events that could cause damage. Crisis communications, including putting out rapid responses to the press and on social media, are integral to modern PR strategy.

Press exclusivity

In garnering attention for a particular cause or item, it can be useful to give a specific media outlet exclusivity. That way, a PR team can control the rollout, ensure that the message gets out and develop a relationship with the publication in question.

By earning a Master’s in Strategic Public Relations from the George Washington University, you can be prepared for the demands of modern PR. Learn more by visiting the main program page today, where you can download a free copy of our brochure.

Recommended Readings:
How to Become a Better PR Professional
7 Metrics for Measuring PR Success
Marketing to Millennials

Public Relations Specialists
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